By Edward N. Albro
When Google+ first launched, most people saw it, correctly, as a competitor to Facebook. But as you try Google’s social network, you realize that it has a lot in common with Twitter too. That versatility could be Google’s strength — but it could be its downfall too. Is Google+ trying to do too much?
Google+’s similarities to Facebook are obvious: You can use it to share updates, pictures and videos with family and friends. But Google+ can also be a lot like Twitter. Like Twitter (and unlike Facebook), absolute strangers can follow you without you following them or approving them (you can block people if you want). And while you can use Google+ to share personal news with people close to you, you can also use it to broadcast your thoughts on the news of the day to thousands of people you’ve never met.
In fact, my early impression of Google+ is that it is being used more like Twitter than like Facebook, that is more as broadcast than as friendly sharing. Of course, my circles are mostly filled at this point with tech journalists, both because those are the people who got early invites and because they’re the people I know. And tech journalists are notorious blowhards. So the use of Google+ may change as it expands to the general public.
As Google+ expands, though, I wonder if people will know what to make of this Swiss Army Knife of social networks. After all, what killed Google Wave wasn’t that it did too little, it was that it did too much. It was an email system, a chat network, a file sharing service, a project management device and more — it did so much that people couldn’t figure out how to use it.
The fact that Google+ can be both Facebook and Twitter at once (with maybe a little Tumblr thrown in) could be its greatest competitive edge against those other services. But it could also leave users bewildered.
And the confusion won’t be confined to how you share things in your own account. Maybe more difficult will be knowing what to expect of the people you follow. When I follow Lance Armstrong on Twitter, I know what I’m going to get: That portion of his thoughts that he thinks are appropriate for thousands of people he doesn’t know. If I were to follow him on Google+, I don’t know what I’d get, because I don’t know how he’ll see the forum. If Lance decides Google+ is like Facebook, I may see almost nothing because he’s only sharing with his actual family and friends. Or I may get the same kind of firehose of pronouncements I see on Twitter.
Of course, the great thing about Google+ is that you don’t have to choose between the two different ways of communicating, some posts can go only to your closest friends, others to any Tom, Dick or Harry. I hope that as Google+ rolls out to hundreds of millions of new users, they’ll see those distinct ways of communicating as powerful. But I fear that for many, it may just be confusing.